Mugged by nos­tal­gia on the race­track

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Les Car­lyon’s

n the 1980s, Gerald Mur­nane, al­ready an ad­mired nov­el­ist, was lec­tur­ing at a col­lege of ad­vanced ed­u­ca­tion in Mel­bourne and didn’t re­ally fit in, which should sur­prise no one. It is hard to think of any­one less suited to col­le­giate frol­ics — an ob­ser­va­tion, one should add, that is of­fered as a bou­quet. Mur­nane has been plough­ing lone fur­rows since be­fore they be­came cliches.

He pinned only three pic­tures on the large dis­play board above his col­lege desk, even though it had room for at least 30. There were por­traits of Emily Bronte and Mar­cel Proust. The third item came as two blurry news­pa­per pho­to­graphs of the race­horse Bern­bor­ough. The first showed the big stal­lion in about 20th place at the top of the home straight in a Bris­bane race dur­ing 1946. The sec­ond, taken at the fin­ish­ing post, showed Bern­bor­ough win­ning the race af­ter pro­duc­ing one of those elec­tri­fy­ing sprints that had en­shrined him in folk­lore.

No snaps of Che Gue­vara, who turned stub­ble into a fash­ion state­ment, or of Gough Whitlam mar­tyred on the steps of Par­lia­ment House. Just two au­thors and a horse. But it was right enough. There was a pat­tern here, and Mur­nane likes pat­terns.

Mur­nane smiles on Bronte and Proust (to whom he has some­times been com­pared), as well as Henry James. But he loves horserac­ing, if in a way that sets him up as a true ec­cen­tric. He sees it as a metaphor for life and the hu­man con­di­tion and, some­times, “a sort of higher vo­ca­tion ex­cus­ing us from en­gag­ing with the mun­dane”.

Mur­nane ex­plains in this charm­ing memoir that his work col­leagues “seemed to have as­sumed that be­cause I was a writer I was like them in hav­ing left-wing po­lit­i­cal be­liefs, read­ing The Age and tun­ing in to the ABC”.

He liked to pro­voke them. “Some­times, af­ter I had drunk a good deal, I used to ar­gue that horserac­ing had as much to teach us as had Shake­speare and cer­tainly much more than some of the pre­ten­tious films and plays that they were fond of prais­ing and dis­cussing.”

One night he told them the story of Bill Cof­fey, the owner-trainer from New Zealand. Cof­fey would work in the tim­ber mills un­til he had saved enough to buy him­self a new race­horse. In 1964, one of these ran fifth in Polo Prince’s Mel­bourne Cup. Late in the fol­low­ing decade, Cof­fey was back at Flem­ing­ton with a steeplechaser called Lord Pi­late. Mur­nane was in the grand­stand when, amid driz­zling rain, Lord Pi­late fell at one of the fences in the straight. He lay on the track, alive but un­able to rise.

Track work­ers be­gan erect­ing the green can­vas screen. Then Mur­nane saw a man wear­ing a long oil­skin coat run­ning to­wards the horse, the coat flap­ping and hin­der­ing him, “mak­ing him look like an un­gainly or crip­pled bird”. The man flung him­self down on the grass next to the horse, put his arms around its neck and pressed his face against its head. The man went on ly­ing there. The light rain went on fall­ing. The vet and the track at­ten­dants stood with­out mov­ing. They were not em­bar­rassed. They were merely be­ing re­spect­ful. They were horse­men too. They went on stand­ing pa­tiently. They went on wait­ing un­til the old man, the tim­ber worker and part-time owner-trainer, had spent the mea­sure of his grief.

This is Mur­nane, the stylist, at his best. Short declar­a­tive sen­tences, all mus­cle and bone. Ev­ery word and punc­tu­a­tion mark mulled over so that it earns its place and sits just right. Im­agery made stronger by the de­lib­er­ate rep­e­ti­tion of words, in this case “went on”. The prose it­self plain and un­sen­ti­men­tal but pro­duc­ing a cu­mu­la­tive ef­fect that prods at your heart. No pur­ple flights, no show­ing off.

You sense a man for­ever strain­ing to tell what he be­lieves to be the truth. There has al­ways been a stub­born hon­esty to Mur­nane’s work. Some­thing for the Pain is an un­usual book by an un­usual man and the charm is in the prose. And if you are a Mur­nane ad­mirer, you will learn more about him from this than any­thing he has writ­ten be­fore.

If rac­ing has not spawned a body of literature to match those owned by cricket and box­ing, it has still pro­duced some fine word­smiths, and the forces that inspired them make nice con­trasts with the ob­ses­sions of Mur­nane. Among Aus­tralians, ‘‘Banjo’’ Pater­son, an am­a­teur jockey and polo player, was fas­ci­nated by the horse it­self: its lin­eage, moods and, above all, its hero­ics. Neville Penton in his A Rac­ing Heart told us in sparkling prose about The Closed So­ci­ety: the train­ers, jock­eys, strap­pers and hang­ers-on who meet in the dark at race­tracks ev­ery morn­ing and live in a bub­ble of their own, and by rules that they alone un­der­stand. Among the Amer­i­cans, we have the jour­nal­ist Joe Palmer, a peer­less stylist, who first of all saw rac­ing as a way of life, leisured and man­nered, which is the way he wrote. And there is Damon Run­yon, who fash­ioned rac­ing’s losers and bat­tlers into philoso­phers and wags, and also un­der­stood one of the great truths: that at any time on a race­course some­one some­where is plot­ting lar­ceny.

Mur­nane is like none of these. He has never sat on a horse. He didn’t walk on to a race­course un­til he was 15. He likes to bet but, as he puts it, timidly. He is cap­ti­vated not so much by horses, pedi­grees or race­track char­ac­ters as by the colours and pat­terns of the jock­eys’ silks and what these sym­bol­ise, by the deriva­tion of horses’ names, by the crescendo and dimin­u­endo of the race­callers, by the way the story of a race can be told in time to the 1812 Over­ture, by a search for a sym­me­try that only he fully un­der­stands. He is be­witched by rac­ing’s mu­sic and aes­thet­ics. To him, it is a pageant that keeps teas­ing the senses, draw­ing him back, week af­ter week.

His en­joy­ment of the sport, he writes, is “a soli­tary thing: some­thing I could never wholly ex­plain to any­one else”. And in another place: “Rac­ing pro­vides me with a set of be­liefs and a way of life.”

It be­gan with a dreamy boy at Bendigo star­ing at grainy pho­to­graphs in the mid­week Sport­ing Globe, recit­ing the names of horses and con­jur­ing up im­ages of what those names stood for. A horse called Hia­tus, for in­stance, be­came a bird in flight above a de­serted seashore or es­tu­ary. Then he saw his first set of colours, on a trot­ter at the Bendigo Show­grounds, and another ob­ses­sion be­gan. And so this book ends up as a de­light­ful pro­ces­sion of mem­o­ries, an evo­ca­tion of a world that has gone and isn’t com­ing back.

His mem­o­ries re­mind you of your own. Mur­nane was there when 20,000 peo­ple, most of them men in gabar­dine over­coats, turned up to an or­di­nary win­ter meet­ing at Flem­ing­ton, tum­bling out of dirty red trains that came with brass door han­dles. When the west wind off the Maribyrnong River sent clouds of cig­a­rette smoke scud­ding across the course. When there were no off-course totes and SP book­ies lurked in cob­bled lanes and rode around coun­try towns on bi­cy­cles, tak­ing half-crown bets from old ladies who lis­tened to the races on ra­dios the size of re­frig­er­a­tors.

When Flem­ing­ton, the sub­urb, wasn’t gen­tri­fied and pep­per­corn trees wept in the sum­mer Gerald Mur­nane, left, at the Na­tional Gallery of Vic­to­ria’s ex­hi­bi­tion The Horse; Luke Nolen rides Re­ward for Ef­fort to a prophetic vic­tory at Caulfield in 2009 heat and calves bleated in those sa­le­yards that seemed to go on for­ever and the wind car­ried the blood-and-mud whiff of the abat­toirs. Back when hun­dred of book­mak­ers turned up on course ev­ery Satur­day and used black crayons to scrib­ble graf­fiti on bet­ting tick­ets. When rac­ing was in the main­stream of sports, off lim­its to cor­po­rates who would later turn it into a sev­en­days-a-week casino that most of the time is soul­less.

Mur­nane re­mem­bers all this and sev­eral times refers to “the Great Age of Rac­ing”. It could be that Mur­nane and I have been mugged by nos­tal­gia. Maybe rac­ing back then was no bet­ter than it is now, but it cer­tainly seemed more in­ter­est­ing. The news that an Arab po­ten­tate has, on a whim, bought him­self a new horse for $30 mil­lion, or that Aus­tralians may now use some elec­tronic de­vice to bet on trot­ting races in In­di­ana, or that rac­ing’s bu­reau­crats have a new “strate­gic plan” com­plete with umpteen bar charts — these things some­how fail to wrig­gle their way into one’s heart.

This book is as much an au­to­bi­og­ra­phy as a memoir of the turf. Mur­nane’s wife, Cather­ine, died a few days be­fore the Blue Diamond Stakes meet­ing at Caulfield in 2009. Long be­fore this the cou­ple had made a pact. The first of them to die would ar­range from the spirit-world for the sur­viv­ing part­ner to back, on the first Satur­day af­ter the other’s death, a win­ner at odds of 20-1. Mur­nane duly backed Re­ward for Ef­fort in the Blue Diamond. It was show­ing 16-1 when he got set but it started at 20-1 — and won.

A few years ago Mur­nane was mooted as a pos­si­ble No­bel prize win­ner. Bri­tish book­mak­ers quoted him as short as 8-1 in pre-post mar­kets. One is in­clined to think Gerald, thought­ful punter that he is, would have hung out for 20-1 — and also had a saver on the Peru­vian weight­for-age per­former Mario Var­gas Llosa.


books in­clude True Grit: Tales from 40 Years on the Turf.

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